Aug 23, 2021

The Afghan refugees.

The Afghan refugees.

Plus, a question about the 2022 midterms.

️I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The Afghan refugee situation. Plus, a question about the 2022 midterms.

A photo from inside a U.S. military plane leaving Kabul. Photo: Marcus Weisberger, Defense One

Quick hits

  1. The U.S. has expanded its safe zone around Kabul and called on six commercial airlines to help transport evacuated Afghans from intermediary locations to U.S. military bases or transit points in Europe and the Middle East. (The story)
  2. The FDA has granted full approval to the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. (The authorization)
  3. President Donald Trump was booed at a rally in Alabama after encouraging his supporters to get vaccinated. (The clip)
  4. Proud Boys and Antifa activists clashed in Portland this weekend, including an exchange of gunfire. (The details)
  5. Catastrophic flooding in Central Tennessee left at least 21 dead and 20 people missing (The storm). Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people were without power in the Northeast after Tropical Storm Henri flooded streets and brought down power lines. (The landfall)

What D.C. is talking about.

Afghan refugees. As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to play out, President Joe Biden is facing one of the biggest challenges of his administration yet: not only how to ensure the safety of Americans and U.S. allies who helped the military during the war, but how to help thousands of Afghan refugees who are trying to flee the country as the Taliban comes into control.

On Saturday, the British military reported that seven Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban were killed outside the airport in Kabul amid a crush of people. Threats from Islamic State militants against Americans have made the U.S. rethink its plans for evacuating through Kabul airport, and the Biden administration has now enlisted commercial airliners to provide more than a dozen planes to help evacuees flee.

Right now, the U.S. is helping move Afghans with two separate immigration processes. One is special immigrant visas, or SIVs, which are for Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. government during the war. They have been facing major backlogs and there have been dozens of reports of delayed, years-long delays in application processes for Afghans who applied well before a withdrawal was inevitable. President Biden has come under fire for not cutting the red tape and earlier this week, a former aide to former Vice President Michael Pence claimed that the Trump administration tried to stymie the admittance of Afghan refugees.

The other is a Priority 2 refugee admission program that allows Afghans to apply who have a working relationship with the U.S., but it includes non-governmental organizations, the media and U.S.-funded projects. While the qualifications for this program are broader, there is one huge hurdle: applicants must be outside of Afghanistan in order to apply, which means the Afghans in Afghanistan must escape and find safe harbor first.

At the same time, the number of Afghans being transported out to U.S. military bases and surrounding countries is already significant. Since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated approximately 37,000 people, which does not include thousands more evacuated by coalition forces. In the last 24 hours alone, more than 10,000 people have been taken from Afghanistan by U.S. forces to military bases across or intermedia locations across the world. The Wall Street Journal has reported that a tent city has already been erected at New Jersey’s Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst base in order to manage the expected influx of refugees.

These processes, the hurdles to get out, and the looming refugee crisis have set off a new debate about what America’s role should be in resettling Afghans — not just those who worked with the U.S., but thousands more who will attempt to leave the country as the Taliban takes back control. Below, we’ll take a look at some arguments from the left, right and then my take.

What the left is saying.

The left has argued for resettling American allies and also taking in as many Afghan refugees as we can, regardless of whether they worked for our military or not.

In The Los Angeles Times, Karen Musalo said the U.S. could take in as many as 150,000 Afghan refugees.

“Direct help from the U.S. is going to require a different approach than the government is taking now,” Musalo said. “Nothing in the law of the United States limits it to these two narrow options for responding to the urgent protection needs of the Afghan people. The Immigration and Nationality Act provides a mechanism to admit individuals ‘for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,’ a process referred to as ‘humanitarian parole.’ Administrations going back to the 1950s have used the parole authority generously to admit those fleeing persecution — Hungarians after the Soviet invasion of their country, Cubans after Fidel Castro took power, and Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon. Just this week a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to evacuate Afghans at highest risk and to use humanitarian parole to quickly and efficiently allow their entry into the United States.

“Why? Some advocates speak of the responsibility the United States bears to the Afghan people after invading and fighting there for 20 years,” she said. “They rightfully argue that the administration should not walk away from people who believed in and worked toward U.S. ideals of democracy, human rights, gender equality and freedom of the press. And that is correct. Those with a longer memory may also recall an earlier U.S. intervention. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the U.S. provided covert support to the mujahedin resistance, which subsequently became the Taliban. Any calculus of U.S. moral responsibility must take into account the full arc of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.”

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg said “the administration has no excuse for its failure to evacuate our allies and prepare for a refugee exodus.”

“Afghans awaiting papers under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which applies to those who worked for the U.S. government or military, could have been taken out of the country for processing,” she wrote. “It was only two weeks ago that the administration started the P-2 visa program for Afghans who worked for American contractors, nongovernmental organizations and media outlets. Now, as the administration scrambles to deal with the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, it needs to help Afghans who are trying to rescue themselves, both immediately and in the long term.

“The U.S. also needs to ensure that they have a place to go. Azizzada called for the U.S. to demand that neighboring countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan open their borders to Afghan refugees,” Goldberg said. “And, of course, we should bring as many as possible here. Canada, which is about one-ninth the size of the United States, has announced its intention to take more than 20,000 fleeing Afghans. There is no way to justify America accepting fewer on a per capita basis; 180,000 should be the absolute floor. This is likely to be unpopular; polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the comparatively tiny Syrian refugee resettlement program. But there is no moral argument against vastly expanded refugee admissions.”

In Bloomberg, Noah Smith said Afghan refugees are “no economic threat” to Americans.

“One economic worry is that refugees take American jobs; after all, Afghans living in America will need to find work,” Smith wrote. “But the number of jobs in the world is not fixed; when you add more people to a country, and they start doing work, it means more jobs have been created. Employers simply find new things for the new people to do. Even if an immigrant does take a native-born person’s job, employers will find something new for the displaced native-born worker to do — often for a higher salary.

“In fact, no immigration is required in order for this magic to happen; as the U.S. population grows, so does total employment, regardless of whether the population increase comes from new entrants or natural births,” Smith added. “Immigrants are simply babies from elsewhere. Economic evidence bears this out. There has been no shortage of refugee waves in the past few decades. Each time a bunch of refugees moves to a new country, economists can study the effect on the local labor market. And each time, they keep finding no deleterious effect. Whether it’s Iraqi refugees in Sweden, Syrian refugees in Turkey, Middle Eastern refugees in Denmark, Cuban refugees in the U.S., or any number of other similar situations, economists just keep finding no employment penalty for the native-born. Nor do wages suffer.”

What the right is saying.

Many on the right say we should prioritize Americans and those who helped the military, but need to be careful about admitting thousands of refugees.

The National Review editors argued that our imperative should be “to fly out as many Afghans as possible consistent with our obligation to help Americans first.

“Besides Afghans who have already been approved for SIVs, though, everyone should go to third countries,” they wrote. “This serves the important humanitarian function of getting them out of harm’s way in Afghanistan. It also provides us the time and space to vet and process them and eventually bring SIVs and others who are most deserving into the United States.

“It is important to realize, on the one hand, that this category of people is different from, say, the Syria migrants who walked into Europe during the Syrian civil war,” the editors said. “These Afghans are not random people fleeing a conflict, but those who chose to identify themselves with us and Western values when the chips were down. It is also true, on the other hand, that there is a limit to any Western country’s assimilative capacity. France has had trouble for decades absorbing the Muslim migrants who came there from its colonies. Perhaps we are better at assimilation than the French, but the large Somali diaspora in the Minneapolis area has at times been a seedbed of radicalism and discontent.”

In American Greatness, Christopher Roach argued “there are middling options that are being ignored.”

“There is no reason refugees from Afghanistan need to live in the United States,” Roach argued. “Culturally and religiously, they would all find far more congenial places to live in the Middle East or Central Asia. Of course, none of these alternatives have been seriously contemplated, because refugees serve the domestic agenda of the ruling class, who have a consensus on open borders that spans both parties. The Left faction wants the voters and also to accelerate the cultural marginalization of heritage Americans. The mainstream Republicans want cheap labor, as well as to show that they’re super sincere about their commitment to liberal universalism.

“Both halves of the ruling class are fundamentally liberal because both deny the importance of ethnic and cultural cohesion at home,” he said. “This misunderstanding of the world degraded our effectiveness in Afghanistan. Liberal universalism is why we emphasized things like education and gender equity in Afghanistan, when the people wanted clean water and basic security and, for that matter, Sharia. Now having failed in Afghanistan, we will try to prove the success of liberal universalism at home, with 30,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 refugees soon arriving. This is madness. Not only will this group include numerous criminals escaping justice, a legion of proven cowards, and an unknowable number of terrorists and infiltrators, but even the best among them will burden us and be burdened by a significant clash of cultures.

In The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan said Biden should consider reversing decisions and increasing our presence in Afghanistan until the Americans and Afghans there can be evacuated.

“As for the Afghan translators and others who worked with us and with our European allies, the obvious should not need saying but apparently does,” Noonan wrote. “They threw their lot with America at some immediate cost and an enormous potential price. It is not only a national imperative but a human imperative to save them from retribution. America does this after its wars. It tried to save those who helped in World War II and Vietnam. Those refugees made excellent Americans. Afghan workers have for 20 years seen the idealism and good faith of our servicemen up close. They know us better than we know ourselves. They are not a burden but a benefit.

“Mr. Biden, focus. Don’t be diffident and fatalistic, don’t be equivocal, don’t be forced by events,” she concluded. “Don’t make the media and the military drag you to this decision. Take authority. This story is not going away. Accept the chastening decision to send in more troops and air power if needed. Show that you recognize the emergency. Pivot away from process. Don’t ‘speed up Special Immigrant Visas’; that ship has sunk, suspend the rules. Get Afghans trying to flee to a third country, and sort it out there. Mistakes will be made; uncover them there.”

My take.

It makes me deeply uncomfortable to talk about how we should prioritize human lives — especially in the spectatorial, detached tone that makes it sound like we’re choosing what to order for dinner and not which innocent people we should protect from being slaughtered.

What’s clear, and where there is obvious consensus, is that the U.S. needs to continue to evacuate as many Americans and known Afghan allies as we can. It’s good to acknowledge that basically everyone agrees on this. The justification for prioritizing American citizens is obvious, but the justification for Afghan allies is twofold: we owe them the greatest debt, and they are simultaneously in the most danger (because of their work for us). It’s also true that — while America obviously did not introduce civil war in Afghanistan — it has helped destabilize the country in the modern era. As we touched on in our Afghanistan explainer, it was the U.S. who first supported the mujahideen fighters that would later be joined by al-Qaeda and fracture into the modern-day Taliban. This, too, demands an acknowledgment of a moral responsibility on our part to help as many people now facing down the Taliban as we can.

The emerging refugee crisis will, unfortunately, be engulfed in the political flames of partisanship. The left is fond of pointing to our historically low refugee admittance while ignoring the dozens of other programs — and our relatively open asylum system on the border — that bring in over a million new immigrants and migrants every year. The right is fond of pointing to the southern border and our refugee programs as proof we have an “open border,” ignoring the harsh reality that immigrating here is extremely difficult, that very few people get in without being vetted, and that migrants (regardless of their immigration status) are not the reason we have suppressed wages or violent crime.

There are fair questions to ask about the “risks” of resettling, say, 150,000 Afghan refugees, as Karen Musalo suggested. I think Noah Smith successfully debunked the economic fears in his take above, but there is another elephant in the room not being addressed by the left: Europe. Tucker Carlson argued that we just watched countries like Germany explode with crime, and the government there conducted a study that tied the increase in that crime directly to an influx of refugees. The study attributed more than 90 percent of the violent crime increase to young male refugees. You can expect to hear a lot more about the European refugee crisis in the weeks to come.

But there are a few other important factors to consider. First, that same study found that there was a huge variance in crime based on where refugees came from and what their chances were of getting legitimate legal status in Germany. The study also found that asylum seekers who had a good chance of staying in Germany behaved better, a conclusion that should shock approximately no one. It’s also true that those refugees were predominantly young men, who are the driving force of crime in basically every society on earth. In other words: if you had migrated a bunch of young men of similar socioeconomic status to Germany from anywhere else, and they were living in isolation without family or partners or opportunities for citizenship, it wouldn’t matter whether they were Afghans or Canadians — crime probably would have gone up.

So there are lessons to be learned from Europe and Germany and past American action on refugees, but I don’t think the lesson is to batten down the hatches. The beauty of America is that, contrary to so many narratives out there, we’re actually pretty good at accepting and integrating immigrants from different countries with different backgrounds. Especially refugees. On a global scale, we’re arguably better at it than just about anyone.

It’s impossible to say what number of refugees is the “right” number and it’s still not even clear how many thousands of Afghans will want to leave their country to come here or go anywhere else. But we have an inextricable bond with Afghanistan now and can prioritize this: a commitment from the Biden administration to support and admit tens of thousands of refugees — even those who didn’t work directly with Americans. That would be a just response to the current crisis and would help us rally our allies to do the same. Then we should continue the work of getting as many people out as we can and bringing them either to U.S. military bases for vetting and resettlement or to nearby coalition nations that can do their part to support Afghan refugees as they chart their final destinations. We, and the world, owe it to them in this extraordinary moment. And we’re uniquely positioned to do it well.

Your questions, answered.

Q: How screwed are Democrats for the 2022 midterms? And how much will Afghanistan matter?

— Derek, Detroit, Michigan

Tangle: Pretty screwed, and not much.

I think Afghanistan is a major story and is doing a lot of damage to the carefully cultivated image of a competent, in-control administration. But Biden’s approval rating was taking a dive before the fallout in Kabul and I’m fairly certain it mostly has to do with Covid-19, inflation, gas prices and the situation on the southern border. Those kinds of issues are driving dissatisfaction among independents and moderate Republicans, the groups who are largely going to be responsible for the change in his numbers (much of the rest of the country will be fixed along partisan lines on most issues).

But regardless of Biden’s approval ratings, Democrats are in big trouble. The political party controlling the White House historically does badly in midterm elections, and Republicans are riding major momentum already. Harry Enten recently wrote about how Republicans are outperforming the 2020 presidential baseline by 3 points. In addition, they are going to be in a good position to gerrymander many districts into victories (more than Democrats will be able to). From redistricting in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas alone, Republicans could retake the House.

The more interesting question is whether they’ll get the Senate, too, which would all but slam the door shut on the rest of the Biden agenda. On that I’m less sure, but I’d be shocked if Republicans don’t control the House by next fall, and just as surprised if Afghanistan has very much to do with it.

A story that matters.

The Arizona audit of the 2020 election is splitting the Republican party apart, according to The Wall Street Journal. We’ve covered the audit, but with the results expected to come this month, Arizona Republicans who back the audit say its necessary to prove they care about election security while those who oppose it say it will turnoff centrist Republicans and independents to continue rehashing the 2020 election. The situation in Arizona is a microcosm of the debate happening across the party — and the plan for how Republicans will approach the 2022 midterms and which issues they plan to elevate. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)


  • -15 points. The drop in President Biden’s approval rating over the course of four months, according to an NBC poll.
  • 25%. The percentage of Americans who support President Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, according to an NBC poll.
  • 88%. The percentage of Democrats who approve of the job President Biden is doing.
  • 20,000. The number of Afghan refugees that Canada committed to taking in.
  • 29,916. The number of refugees admitted by the U.S. in 2019.
  • 773,000. The estimated number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 2011 to 2020.
  • 1,265,000.The estimated number of refugees admitted to Germany from 2011 to 2020.

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Have a nice day.

A 60-year-old mother from Oklahoma helped several members of Afghanistan’s famous all-girls robotics team escape the Taliban and get safely to Qatar. On Tuesday, 10 of the so-called “Afghan Dreamers” — aged 16 to 18 — were able to leave Kabul on a commercial flight to Doha. One of the people who helped them was Allyson Reneau, a mom of 11 from Oklahoma who met the girls during the Human to Mars summit in Washington, D.C. in 2019. Reneau had been texting with the girls, who saw the dangers coming in Afghanistan weeks ago, so she flew to Qatar, enlisting the help of a friend from college who worked at the embassy, to file the girls’ paperwork and start the process of getting them out of Kabul. Business Insider has the incredible story.

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